The rabbi of Chelm (well known in Jewish folklore as a city of fools) was preparing for the weekly Shabbat afternoon Torah study, and the week’s Torah portion was Nitzavim. The rabbi often worked while listening to the Chelm NPR station, KFUL, and the “Fool’s Forum” program. A caller said:
What is happening today? Police shootings of black people, people shooting police officers, hate and fear mongering, mass migrations of refugees, homelessness growing, the price of housing skyrocketing, right-wing governments rising over Europe — and who knows what else. I don’t know what to do!
Fortunately, the guest was Rabbi Nachman of Breslov. He said:
All the world is a very narrow bridge, and the most important thing is not to be overwhelmed by fear.
A second caller:
Hello, Viktor E. Frankl here. Nachman is right; one cannot allow fear to immobilize oneself. Listen, everything can be taken from you but one thing — the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.
That’s so true, the Chelm rabbi thought. Strange, my logo-therapist has said that many times.
The third caller:
Longtime listener, first-time caller, love the show. This is the Rambam from Cairo, Illinois. I’d like to point out that in a book I am writing, “The Mishne Torah,” in a special section called “on repentance,” I have written: “Free will is granted to all people. If you desire to turn yourself to the path of good and be righteous, the choice is yours. Should you desire to turn to the path of evil and be wicked, the choice is yours. This is a fundamental principle and the very foundation of Torah and mitzvot. As it’s written: ‘Behold I have placed before you this day life and goodness, death and wrongfulness’ (Deuteronomy 30:15) and, ‘Behold, I have presented to you this day a blessing and a curse’ (Deuteronomy 11:26).”
That’s amazing, thought the Rabbi of Chelm; Deuteronomy 30:15 is in this week’s Torah portion! “Behold I have placed before you this day life and goodness, death and wrongfulness” is exactly what he has been thinking about. There are always challenges placed before us. It is our gift to choose how to respond.
Just then “Fool’s Forum” concluded and the next NPR program, “This Chelmite Life,” began:
Each week we choose a theme and put together different kinds of stories on that theme. This week’s theme is about the choices we make facing a dilemma. Our first story is about the small and not very imposing Reb Zusia. He walked into a tavern to collect money for the poor. A tavern is generally a good place to find people with money, and being slightly more open-minded after a good number of drinks, generous. Not this day.
Suddenly a bully saw him and grabbed him by the lapels and lifted him up into the air and asked this question: “I have always wondered what you Jews believe about heaven and hell!”
Zusia responded: “Sir, you are the ugliest person I have ever seen; your breath smells very bad.”
The bully raised his right hand in fury, his left holding Zusia off his feet, and prepared to pummel the poor man to his death. Zusia looked him in the eyes and said now: “This is hell.” The startled bully put Zusia down and dropped his arms to his side.
Zusia said: “This is heaven. The choice is in your hands.”
Back in Cairo, Illinois, the Rambam, listening to “This Chelmite Life,” writes:
Without a doubt, one’s actions are in one’s own hands, and God neither impels nor decrees what an individual is to do or not do.
Back in Chelm, the Rabbi writes:
Deuteronomy 30:19, “Choose life, and live: Don’t be afraid, pull yourself together — and get going.”
Then the Rabbi of Chelm thought to himself:
I think my rebbe, Rabbi Alan Lew z”l, once said something just like that just before Rosh Hashanah.